“I’ll believe it when I see it … ” the mantra of the skeptic.
“I’ll see it when I believe it … ” the mantra of the empowered.
Your belief systems inform your interpretation of the world. Other than when you’re embroiled in a heated debate, they usually run quietly in the background of your mind. As a result, you probably don’t pay much attention to them. But you should.
An invisible force driving your behavior, your belief systems either help — or impede —your performance. They profoundly impact who you are, how you interact with others and what you achieve (or don’t achieve). Because they are intertwined, changing even one of your core belief systems can disrupt many others. Your belief systems influence the way you approach relationships, your career and even day-to-day challenges, like getting caught in construction traffic on the way to an important meeting.
How Are Belief Systems Formed?
Belief systems are rooted in a number of factors. Some are cultural; some are highly individualized. Your first belief systems were formed even before you could articulate them. As an infant, you had very basic needs, which you communicated in very basic ways. When you were hungry, you cried. Someone fed you right away—or didn’t. Maybe someone fed you even before you had a chance to become hungry, anticipating your needs, or accommodating their schedule. In your tiny infant brain, you began to form early belief systems: I am safe. My needs are met. I can trust.
Around the time you entered elementary school, your belief systems were increasingly influenced by external forces: your parents, peers and teachers. Even your favorite cartoon character or action hero had belief systems that influenced yours. As their belief systems were conveyed to — or impressed upon — you, it was up to you to accept, reject or modify them.
Your personal history and bank of (direct and indirect) experiences further shaped your belief systems. Like a scientist, some of your belief systems became hypotheses that you proved or disproved. To this day, you might hold onto some belief systems tightly, while letting others go or change.
Case in point: One client had been the unfortunate victim of a random assault. She had been walking home at night, after a quiet evening at a friend’s apartment, when she was dragged into an alley and brutally attacked by an unidentified male. Understandably, the event profoundly changed several of her belief systems. This once carefree, fun and trusting woman no longer believed that the world was a safe place. She developed a distrust of strangers, particularly men. She was so afraid to go out once the sun went down that she simply didn’t. Believing that the world was full of danger, and that men were “bad,” she didn’t allow herself to date, and refused to stay late at the office for fear of coming home after dark. Clearly, these belief systems were limiting her life in dramatic ways.
It doesn’t take a traumatic event to create or adjust your belief systems on a day-to-day basis. In fact, it’s probably something you do all the time, without realizing it. Maybe your boss says something that makes you question the value of your contributions, your parent insults your taste in home décor, or your surly teen calls you a name in the heat of an argument. That event or conversation can be the seed that plants doubt in a belief system about your worth or your relationship. Whether it’s true or not, that belief system becomes a new thread that triggers multiple decisions about what you think, feel, say or do.
Do Your Belief Systems Help You — Or Hinder You?
Although belief systems aren’t inherently good or bad, some beliefs promote optimal performance, while others hold you back. The reason: while your belief systems are influenced by a number of factors, they also influence the way you approach life. In a sense, they’re both proactive and reactive: If you believe that you have nothing worthwhile to contribute, you’ll probably keep quiet in department meetings. Because you keep quiet in meetings, you’re never recognized for your contributions. Therefore, your belief that you have nothing worthwhile to contribute is reinforced.
In this way, belief systems can become self-fulfilling prophecies — either positive or negative. They can also drive you to take risks (or not), to cultivate resilience (or not) and to become a better version of yourself (or not).
To assess whether your own belief systems are helping or hindering you, develop an increased awareness of your thoughts. When something happens, why do you respond in the way you do? What thoughts color your perception of an event, situation or conversation?
From there, extrapolate. How do these belief systems either serve you, or hold you back? If you believe you’re a klutz, for example, you’re probably extra cautious when you walk on an icy sidewalk (good!). At the same time, maybe you steer clear of trying a new barre class, or skiing or … fill in the blank with any other activity you deem off-limits. As a result of this limiting belief, you never work on improving your balance or engage in other activities that could actually help you become less accident-prone.
Part of the problem is that limiting beliefs feel like facts. Indeed, sometimes they’re based in (subjective) truths. Let’s say you believe that you’re a terrible public speaker. Maybe you really are pretty terrible, but only because you’re inexperienced … or you never sought out a public speaking course … or you’ve been so entrenched in that limiting belief that it became the truth.
Adjusting Your Belief Systems Facilitates Growth
Belief systems explain why two people can experience and respond to the same event in very different ways. Like eyeglasses, belief systems are clusters of thoughts that adjust the way you see things. It’s no accident that hindsight is crystal clear.
Because they impact your identity and the way you interact with your environment, you tend to maintain a firm grip on your belief systems. Dissonance occurs when you receive new information or feedback; this “data” poses a great threat to your belief systems. It’s often more comfortable to reject it than to experience the anxiety it might cause. And yet, sitting with the discomfort of an authentic emotion forces you to examine the thoughts — the belief systems — behind it. While challenging a belief system — particularly, one that impedes your performance — may feel uncomfortable, that’s what leads to true personal growth.
Here’s the best part: Your belief systems are yours. Like your mental playlist, you create them. Only you have the ability to accept, reject or adjust them. Your belief systems will serve you well, or they’ll hold you back. If you believe it, you will see it.